In the back of Pete Seeger’s book “How to Play the 5-String Banjo” are handwritten notes. Pete added a few post scripts, things he forgot to mention in the original edition. One of the things he included was his address. I wrote to him when I was 15.
And he wrote back.
I’d asked him for some advice. I wanted to know how I could cut the end of my banjo neck off, add three extra frets (like Pete’s custom banjo) and then glue the end back on.
In his reply, he wisely urged me no to try such a thing. It would take a professional luthier to get it right. I was disappointed at the time. But looking back now, it sounds like mighty good advice.
I still have the letter. I’ve kept it with me all these years. It’s just a short note, banged out on a typewriter and hand signed. But it meant Pete was real and, for a few minutes, he knew my name thought about me, personally.
The other night, when I got the news he was gone, I got out a live record he recorded with Arlo Guthrie called “Precious Friend.” I put it on the platter and set the tone arm down on at the start of side two. At that point, Arlo and his band have left the stage. Pete’s out there alone. It’s quiet for a moment, save the pops on the vinyl. Then Pete starts to sing.
My life flows on in endless song
Above earth’s lamentation.
I hear the real, thought far off hymn
That hails the new creation.
Above the tumult and the strife,
I hear the music ringing;
It sounds an echo in my soul
How can I keep from singing?
The the record went around. I opened my gray file cabinet and found the manila folder with Pete’s letter. I knew right where it was. I opened the envelope, graced with a 25-year-old postmark. I read his advice and listened to him sing.
It was too much. Sadness overwhelmed me, but not for long, as I realized I was singing along with him.
No storm can shake my inmost calm
While to that rock I’m clinging.
Since love is lord of Heaven and earth
How can I keep from singing?
I was crying, but I couldn’t keep from singing. That’s what Pete always wanted. It’s what he worked for. He wanted us to sing, together. He wanted us to not be able to keep ourselves from singing. He knew that lifting our voices also lifts our spirits.
There, at my desk in the light of a reading lamp, it was like he was thinking about me again, just for a moment. It was like he was answering a letter from my heart. Instead of telling me not to cut my banjo in half, he just said, “sing.”
And that’s what I did.
Pete may be dead. But I don’t think he’s gone. He’s out there. Wherever people are singing — all alone in the dark or hand-in-hand on a barricade — he’s with them. He’s waving his arms, trying to get them to sing louder and in harmony. They’ll feel better and stronger, if they do.
P.S. By the way, I finally got my long neck banjo. The pot is from a Vega tubaphone, made in Boston in the 1920s. The lengthy neck was crafted by my friend Carter Ruff at Subterranean Music Works in Bath a couple years ago.
Here’s a big thank you to the my partner in The Squid Jiggers, Dave Rowe, for stopping by with his guitar and singing this new song with me. A bigger thanks goes out to members of the Calamari Choir (Eric, Jim, Jeff, Bailey, Simon, Connie and Stace) who showed up at my house with just a few hours notice to sing this song for Pete. Thanks to Leslie for reminding us to smile. Last, but not least, thanks Kris for running the second camera.